Framing Science


As I have argued in talks and articles over the past year, the communication challenge on global warming is to create the public opinion environment where meaningful policy action can take place. This means shaping public perceptions so that global warming is considered a top tier political priority.

Until Congressional members start to see the issue showing up in polls as a perceived priority and until they start to hear more of a diverse public voice on the matter, Congress will have little incentive to make the tough political choices and trade-offs that are needed.

The communication challenge, however, remains daunting. As Pew reported in January of this year, global warming continues to rank dead last among 22 issues as a top political priority and even among Democrats, fewer than a majority (47%) rate the issue as a major political concern.

The absence of public opinion pressure on policymakers is confirmed in the latest Gallup survey released today, part of the organization’s annual survey reports released on Earth Day.

[In a recent journal article, I combined several of these decades long Gallup trends with similarly worded questions from more than a dozen other survey organizations. The article provides the most complete picture of public opinion shifts on global warming over the past 20 years with these latest Gallup findings adding to that picture.]

As Gallup summarizes:

Despite the enormous attention paid to global warming over the past several years, the average American is in some ways no more worried about it than in years past. Americans do appear to have become more likely to believe global warming’s effects are already taking place and that it could represent a threat to their way of life during their lifetimes. But the American public is more worried about a series of other environmental concerns than about global warming, and there has been no consistent upward trend on worry about global warming going back for two decades. Additionally, only a little more than a third of Americans say that immediate, drastic action is needed in order to maintain life as we know it on the planet.

As I recently posted, solving this perceptual gridlock on global warming will take a fundamental shift in communication strategy.



  1. #1 PalMD
    April 21, 2008

    Maybe subtlety doesn’t work in our culture.

  2. #2 cg
    April 21, 2008

    Hi Matt,

    I’m not particularly persuaded to look at these results as proof of a lack of environmental concern.

    In the first graph that you show – only the top option is highlighted. Reading the article about the poll from Gallup, an additional 29% of those surveys said they worried about global warming a fair amount. It seems positive that 66% of Americans worry about global warming a great deal or a fair amount. I’m actually surprised that it’s that high. The issues that people are most concerned about are polluted drinking water and polluted lakes, rivers, and soil. That makes sense to me, because those issues can kill people in a less abstract way than global warming.

    I would also quibble with the value of that last question posted here – when they say “life on earth will continue without major environmental disruptions only if we…” there are many ways to interpret that. I’m not sure what that question is intended to gauge. The will life continue on earth part seems a bit absurd – it is a near certainty that all kinds of species would survive any effort to poison the water, soil, or air, even if humans did not themselves survive. “Major environmental disruptions” are also subject to personal definitions. Wait long enough, and there will be a major environmental disruption like a major volcanic eruption, or a severe collision with an asteroid or other object. If I were asked that question, especially if on the phone, I would not know how to answer it.

    The survey shows 86% of Americans agreeing that additional action should be taken to improve the environment. “How do we capitalize on that?” seems like a better question than “Why aren’t more people concerned?”

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. #3 Anna Haynes
    April 21, 2008

    > “the American public is more worried about a series of other environmental concerns than about global warming”

    I see this in my small town community – there’s a whole lot more interest in personal, local “greening” than in climate protection. People sense that all is not well, but those who aren’t scientifically literate (i.e., about 99.9%) can’t successfully hold their own against the local deniers, and so they just don’t want to go there – instead they “tend their own gardens”, taking personal “green” actions.

    Two recent examples:

    One person emailed saying “Please take me off your [climate action] mailing list. I’m maxed out on green projects.”

    Another, when I suggested that her energies would be better spent enlightening her neighbors about the climate crisis rather than encouraging them to purchase locally grown lumber for their decks, said she didn’t think there was a scientific consensus on climate and she did _not_ want to have a discussion about it.

    I suspect that, at least in non-university towns, the majority of “green” people are like this – they’re “heart” people, distrustful of science and of technology, thus all too effectively confused by the deniers; so they can’t easily grasp just how important dealing with the climate crisis is, or where the solutions will lie.

    I need to know how to reach them.

    (We’re not urban, so perhaps in the “numbers” scheme of things we don’t matter; but as a microcosm, we do.)

  4. #4 jen
    September 9, 2010

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